Edward Mills ’51

Year of Graduation: 
Ed Mills '51

"It begins with the extraordinary beauty of the environment."

Edward Mills’ love affair with the F-86 F Sabre fighter plane began as an arranged marriage. Mills ’51 had been accepted to Princeton, but his father attached conditions to that enrollment.

Alfred Mills ’27 had been a commanding officer in the U.S. Navy and had taken part in the D-Day invasion during World War II.

“He was very proud of his military service,” Ed Mills says. “He strongly felt and communicated to me that because of our relatively privileged position, we owed service to the country. He did say, ‘If you don’t do it, I’m not going to send you to Princeton.’ ”

Mills immediately enrolled in Princeton’s ROTC unit. In 1956, a year after graduation, he drove from New Jersey to Texas with Exeter and Princeton classmate George Hackl to begin Air Force pilot training.

The initial training occurred in a smaller plane with an instructor, but Mills’ maiden voyage in the single-seat F-86 F was dreamlike.

“I still wonder about that trust factor in your training to let you fly it by yourself,” Mills says, chuckling. “Somebody flies next to you, an accomplished pilot, so if you do get in some kind of bind or forget something, he’s sitting 30 feet away and can talk to you on the radio and give you some coaching. I didn’t need the coaching. It was astonishing. This beautiful airplane was flying exactly as I wanted it to.

“When we got up to altitude, the chase pilot said on the radio, ‘Do you want to roll it?’ I said, ‘Well, yes sir.’ He said, ‘Just move the stick about an inch.’ I did and this beautiful airplane rolls upside down, all the way around and back to right-side up and comes back to exactly

the same position. That told us how maneuverable and responsive the plane was.”

Mills’ book, Beautiful Sabre: A USAF Pilot’s Memoir of Gunnery School and Flying the Storied F-86 F, was published by Hellgate Press in May 2017. He dedicated the book to Hackl and Tony Ross, another Exeter classmate with whom he lived in Soule Hall and who became a pilot.

Mills, 84, worked for Exxon oration for 19 years and later served as CEO for North Atlantic Refining Ltd. He has lived in retirement in Bonita Springs, Florida, since 2014.

Mills has not flown in about five years. He says he wrote the book partly to honor what he calls “the most beautiful airplane ever constructed,” partly to reminisce with friends, and partly to leave a lasting memoir of that seminal time in his life for his children, Gay, 61, Laura, 60, and Edward, 58.

“I enjoyed the thought that they would understand what the old man was up to before they came on this earth,” Mills says. “I think it was also to capture a part of my life that was 60-plus years ago. I thought if I didn’t write it down, it would be, to some extent, lost.”

Six decades later, the sensation of flying the F-86 F is still a vivid and cherished memory.

“It begins with the extraordinary beauty of the environment,” Mills says. “If you see a cumulus cloud rising up 20,000 feet and you want to fly straight down its face for the fun of it, you do, and it looks absolutely gorgeous with other clouds around you and the sky and the light changing.

“Most of us took that airplane up as high as it would go. In those days, it didn’t get much higher than 47,000 feet, but once you got up there you realized the sky wasn’t blue any more. It was black. To discover aspects of the world that were unexpected was a function of being able to fly up there in this beautiful bird.” 

— Craig Morgan ’84

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the spring 2018 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.